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October 24, 2006

Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age

Tuman, M.C. (1992). Word Perfect: literacy in the computer age. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Tuman’s book provides an interesting snapshot of how folks in the discipline were thinking about digital literacy at the dawn of the era. Some of it is rather humorous in light of where we are now: he bemoans the fate of literacy “in a world where economic expansion will be propelled forward by teams of workers collaborating through computer networks, not as it was in the last century, by amateur tinkerers working in isolation...” (14). (Social software has begun to adequately negate this fear, I think. What are most bloggers if not amateur tinkerers?) He suggests that the problems of successfully using a physical library system will be solved by CD-ROM (19). (Obviously before the Web, Google, or online encyclopedias.) He ponders the possibility that the private thoughts of individuals transmitted through writing will be lost “in a world characterized by radically more efficient means of storing and retrieving information.” (I'd point to both nonymous and anonymous blogs here, and argue that they have actually enhanced the production of this sort of knowledge.)

Of course, Tuman had no crystal ball to peer into and divine the digital future, and we must be fair about that. The book makes some good contributions. He spends some time thinking about that ways that hardware and code influence writing, turning what was formerly a private act into a “potentially public and social one” (11). He connects this to changes in a workplace where workers’ personal craft knowledge and skills have been devalued in favor of public, scientific knowledge that fuels sheer efficiency (14). (A la Zuboff.) Later on, he examines what he calls the “struggle between texts and graphics”, wondering how the new potential offered by word processing and graphics applications will affect literacies and what developing a field of multimedia comp instruction might entail (110). (A la Lanham.) He rightly argues that the discipline will either be transformed or marginalized, and so should get to work pronto. In the course of this discussion, he makes an argument that closely predicts the value of writing in networked environments:

The literate of the future will be neither the dutiful but unimaginative scribe, nor the powerful but at times heedless intellectual; the computer age will support a new literate, someone committed to working with others, indeed, inextricably linked with them, both literally through computer networks and metaphorically through common causes. (123)

He takes the interesting, optimistic step of hoping that developing digital literacies will have a generally positive affect on mankind. Transforming the limitations of print text, he says, may enable

  • more powerful transformations of nature
  • more powerful explanations of human conduct (a la Hiltz & Turoff, Sproull & Kiesler)
  • more powerful readings of texts (a la Landow)
  • more powerful, because more symbolic, renderings of experience (130)
All of this might be possible if people envision a better world and work to bring that world into being. He’s careful to avoid technological determinism: “the crucial question becomes, not what a technology can do, but how people will be able to interact with it in shaping and fulfilling their own motives” (133). He’s also not as blindly optimistic about the possibilities of democracy as so much early CMC research was, and is very sensitive to the fact that a world of “multiple, de-entered and unauthorized voices is precisely the world most supportive of a new post-industrial economic order managed by a new breed of robber barons, the multinational, de-centered, largely invisible corporations of late capitalism” (135).

October 19, 2006

Hypertext 3.0

Landow, G.P. (2006). Hypertext 3.0: Critical theory and new media in an era of globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.

Landow’s book is an excellent overview of the primary aspects of hypertext theory, and would be a solid main textbook in any textual history or digital text seminar. The primary aspects are grouped in eight sections:

  1. Hypertext: An Introduction — covering definitions, lexias, general history (Bush, etc.), and general connections to books and the print revolution.
  2. Hypertext and Critical Theory — the usual PoMo suspects (Derrida, Deleuze & Guattari, etc.), decentering and nonlinearity, convergence/confluence.
  3. Reconfiguring the Text — weblogs, visual elements, animation, dispersion, complications presented by open text
  4. Reconfiguring the Author — a condensed version of authorship theory as applied to digital environments. Nothing new here, but it’s a good intro to the subject.
  5. Reconfiguring Writing — writing pedagogy and problems in new media environments
  6. Reconfiguring Narrative — Issues presented by the choose-your-own-adventure aspects of hypertext environments, with several examples/case studies
  7. Reconfiguring Literary Education — researching and teaching literacy in hypertext enviornments
  8. The Politics of Hypertext: Who Controls the Text? — Postcolonialism, access, pornography, copyright, surveillance. IMHO, so much is shoehorned into this section that it becomes a mishmash, but there’s hardly room for proper attention to all of these issues.

The most useful sections for me are the first two, which provide further resources for areas I’ve been exploring: linking taxonomies, analogues to book history, and rhizomatic theory.
(B - If you need elaboration on any aspect of this, please let me know. Since the text is an overview of hypertext theory, any section of it could be blown up into a book, and that makes it hard to cover specifics. Plus, I'm not sure how much of this is useful to you.)

October 8, 2006

Relational Communication in Computer-Mediated Interaction

Walther, J.B. & Burgoon, J.K. (1992). Relational communication in computer-mediated interaction. Human Communication Research, 19, 50-88.

This comparison between computer conferencing and face-to-face communication found that CMC’s relational dimensions were similar to that of FTF, a finding that departed from previous research suggesting that CMC had depersonalizing effects on communication due to the absence of nonverbal cues (e.g., Hiltz, Johnson, & Turoff, 1986). This article points out that CMC, as a medium, is not inherently impersonal, but rather is affected by “specifiable conditions and kinds of partners? (p. 52).

Importantly, this research adopted an alternative theoretical perspective—social information-processing vs. “cues filtered out,? the dominant theory at the time. Cues filtered out theory explained CMC’s low SE by attributing the technology with a restrictive quality. Social information-processing, on the other hand, acknowledges time as a factor in relational development; because CMC groups typically require a longer time to communicate than FTF groups, CMC and FTF have differing rates of social information exchange. Addressing the shortcomings of time-limited experiments, which may not provide ample opportunity for development of interpersonal relations between users, the authors conducted a longitudinal study (as did Rice & Love, 1987, whose results also indicated greater levels of socioemotional content in CMC than previously reported).

Results offered mixed support for the study’s 13 hypotheses; however, it was found that “CMC groups do develop and evolve in relationally positive directions. Participants’ ratings of one another’s composure/relaxation, informality, receptivity/trust, and social (versus task) orientation became higher during their progressions; dominance became lower" (p. 76). In particular, the study found that the effects of time were stronger than the effects of medium—initial differences in relational communication between CMC and FTF tended to be eliminated over time. The authors conclude with suggestions that further research address not only the abilities of the medium, but the effects of users’ intentions, needs, and styles as determinants of relational communication in CMC.

October 7, 2006

E-health: Beyond internet searches

Gurak, Laura J. and Hudson, Brenda L. (2006). E-health: Beyond internet searches. In: Internet and Health Care.

This book chapter provides an overview of e-health and examines two applications: clinical service and healthcare professional education, as well as the issue of privacy with its significant implications across e-health applications.

Clinical applications include interactive telemedicine for remote consultations and diagnoses, managing chronic disorders via the Internet, electronic medical records, and tele-homecare. In addition to patient care, e-health has applications in clinical research, such as an electronic primary care research network, being developed at the University of Minnesota under the NIH Roadmap initiative to electronically network primary care physicians—tapping into a previously under-utilized patient base, as primary care providers deliver the majority of patient care in the U.S. Health education initiatives include online courses, virtual clinics where students “see? mock patients through virtual technology, and simulated anatomy lessons.

However, in both clinical and educational applications, barriers exist. The technology itself may not be available at a certain site; there may be resistance from medical professionals to the applications; and clinics and hospitals may lack financial backing to implement applications. In addition, it is important to remember that newer technologies in and of themselves do not result in better care or education.

Another particular concern in e-health is privacy, including: individuals’ right to determine what information is collected and how it is used; ability to access personal information held and know that it is accurate and safe; anonymity in Web-usage; and, ability to send and receive e-mail messages or other data without being intercepted or read by persons other than the intended recipient(s). In addition to technological measures to help maintain privacy (such as firewalls, message and browser encryption, and digital signatures), human judgment is also required; for instance, deciding when electronic communication is appropriate.

As e-health develops into more and varied applications, issues of barriers and privacy must be continually addressed.

Electronic emotion

Rice, Ronald L. and Gail Love. (1987). Electronic emotion: Socio-emotional content in a computer-mediated communication network. Communication Research, 14(1), 85-105.

The authors examine computer conferencing, a relatively new medium at the time of writing, in the context of (1) content and (2) structure. Specifically, how socioemotional content is exchanged among system users and their patterns. The authors are responding to assumptions that CMC is less able to accommodate “the natural richness and interaction of interpersonal communication than face-to-face interaction? (p. 87). Yet, at the time, few studies had explicitly measured the amount of socioemotional content in a CMC network. Here, the authors examine data from six weeks of transcriptions from a medical computer conference system.

Main findings included:
• Increased frequency of messaging is associated with increased duration of messaging
• More active users tend to send more SE content; however, users do not become more SE over time
• Despite the CMC system examined was professional in nature, nearly 30% of total message content was socioemotional, deemed a “generous amount? in light of the function of the network and assumptions against socioemotional content of CMC (p. 101).

Although the study found that CMC facilitated a moderate exchange of socioemotional content, the authors warn that such use may not be deemed appropriate if the medium is viewed by users as a way to mainly exchange task-oriented information (as a professional conference may be viewed). In this respect, the authors point out the importance of the norms, goals, and structure of the user community. Issues in analyzing content and networks are also addressed, including guidelines on using longitudinal data in CMC (pp. 102-3) and using structural equivalence approach in CMC analysis (p. 103).

Walther and Burgoon (1992) further examine the assumptions of CMC as an impersonal medium begun to be explored by Rice and Love here.

October 1, 2006

The strange case of the electronic lover

Van Gelder, Lindsay. (1990). The strange case of the electronic lover. Talking to Strangers: Mediated Therapeutic Communication. Ed. Gary Gumpert and Sandra L. Fish. Norwood: Ablex, 128-142.

This case study outlines how anonymity over the Internet, previously perceived as an advantage of the medium, shattered the trust of a social network in the mid 1980s when a man adopted the online identity of a disabled woman, unbeknownst to others (mainly women) in the network. The man conversed online with various women in the group, gaining trust and winning affection. At first, contact was merely online conversation, but later, contact was made with several women for online sex and even for a face-to-face meeting, as a supposed blind date, set up by the “woman? known as Joan to meet her friend, Alex, Joan’s actual identity.

Once Alex’s actual identity was uncovered, the group felt varying degrees of betrayal. Although a rather extreme example of online subterfuge, particularly for its time, when the Internet was viewed perhaps more optimistically (or naively), it highlights issues that are still relevant today. Anonymity can be a positive feature of online communication (allowing for otherwise shy persons to take on different, more social roles); yet, it can also be potentially harmful (in cases of fraud, for instance). How is trust gained on the internet? What is considered acceptable behavior and how can it be monitored and/or policed? Should it be? The author of this article describes the Alex/Joan story in detail, but provides little commentary in terms of implications. She closes with comments from a feminist perspective relating to trust, intimacy, and sharing between the sexes, admitting that gender remains a major issue in power and communications. But she offers little, other than to “personally applaud? those who actively dismiss categorizing their gender online.

Electronic patient-physician communication

Mandl, Kenneth D., et al. (1998). Electronic patient-physician communication: problems and promise. Annals of Internal Medicine, (129)6, 495-500.

This article outlines pros and cons of electronic communication between physicians and their patients and provides a research agenda to help shape the communications infrastructure in this setting. While the authors believe that email offers opportunities for better communication, they are also wary of potential drawbacks. Either way, they state, linking patients and physicians through email “may have profound implications for the patient-physician relationship? (p. 495).

Potential advantages of email communication include:
• Increasing access to care
• Enhancing patient education
• Augmenting screening programs
• Improving adherence to treatment plans

Potential pitfalls include:
• Use of email may be inappropriate in some situations, such as diagnosis of a new problem, addressing urgent needs, or conveying sensitive issues
• Concern over security and confidentiality
• Medicolegal liability
• Inequitable access to technology

Prior to widescale acceptance and availability of electronic communication between patients and physicians, the authors argue for the following to be addressed:
• “Define appropriate use of the various modes of patient-physician communication
• Ensure the security and confidentiality of patient information
• Create user interfaces that guide patients in effective use of the technology
• Proactively assess the medicolegal liability, and
• Ensure access to the technology by a multicultural, multilingual population with varying degrees of literacy? (p. 495).

Licklider's and Taylor's The Computer as a Communication Device

Licklider, J.C.R. and Robert W. Taylor. (1968). The computer as a communication device. Science and Technology (September), 20-41.

This prescient article from 1968 foretells the computer’s interactive capability and potential relationship with humans, evidenced today in the Internet. Taylor and Licklider, an MIT researcher and influential collaborator on ARPANET, outline here the need for and implications of networked computers with a user-friendly interface. Importantly, the authors do not restrict their assessment to merely technical factors; throughout the article, the technology is placed within the framework of the human. In this sense, they recognize that an effective model for interactive communication must be fluid and dynamic as well as “a common medium that can be contributed and experimented with by all? (p. 22)—as it turned out, a key feature of the Internet. They argue that communication requires a cooperative, externalized model. For interactive communication to be successful (whether face-to-face, through telecommunication, or through computer networks), participants must be able to “create and modify external models? (ibid.). For instance, individuals must be able to articulate, share, understand, and alter each other’s internal ideas through external means.

Specifically, this article illustrates the future of interactive computing and the role of networked computers in group decision-making in the setting of a technical project meeting that occurred in the late 1960s. The authors are convinced that “a particular form of digital computer organization, with its programs and its data, constitutes the dynamic, moldable medium that can revolutionize the art of modeling and that in so doing can improve the effectiveness of communication among people so much as perhaps to revolutionize that also? (p. 27). While the authors outline the network’s infrastructure (nodes and servers, for instance), they are most excited about the “modeling? function of interactive computing as opposed to its “switching? function (that is, its cooperative, human element, as opposed to its technical ability to “store and forward?). Indeed, the focus on technology’s modeling function is this article’s most seminal feature. It examines the effect on the individual, but also, more broadly, on society. They ask: “Will ‘to be on line’ be a privilege or a right? If only a favored segment of the population gets a chance to enjoy the advantage of ‘intelligence amplication,’ the network may exaggerate the discontinuity in the spectrum of intellectual opportunity? (p. 40). Their examination of how humans might interact with this technology is the beginning of a long line of research that continues today.